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Hungary's hunted homeless, a conservative approach to pleasant places

Hungary's hunted homeless, a conservative approach to pleasant places
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Hungary has been cracking down on its homeless people. Cities now have a law saying they can define areas where they aren’t allowed to stay, such as parks, playgrounds, or underpasses. Those who refuse to move on can be sentenced to public service work, fined or put in prison. Civil society groups say the government is criminalising vagrancy and not dealing with the root causes.

To get round an earlier court ruling that the law was not valid, on September 30 the firmly conservative governing Fidesz party embedded the law in the constitution. Fidesz said: “We have to look after those in society who expect safe, clean public spaces, as well as looking after homeless people.”

The Interior Ministry’s Karoly Kontrat told parliament: “We have created 700 shelter places in Budapest. We would like to put a roof over every homeless person’s head. While under the previous Socialist government hundreds of homeless froze to death in the streets, in the past year there’s only been one such person, which is of course more than there should be.”

Hungary’s voters handed Prime Minister Viktor Orbán a two-thirds majority in the last elections.

We spoke to some of the capital’s homeless. They tend to not even know about the law. They said it doesn’t scare them, and that they plan to go on living in the streets.

Árpád Kardos has been there for 20 years. He told us: “It’s a big mess in the shelters, just amazing. You don’t dare go to them, because there are people there who beat you, threaten you and rob you.”

Rough estimates of the total number of homeless in Hungary put the figure at between 30,000 and 50,000. In the World Heritage Site capital, estimates go as high as 15,000, out of a total population of some two million. Fidesz says funding for shelters has been increased, but non-government groups say they’re badly run.

Activist Rita Bence with TASZ, an association for human rights, stressed: “Human rights should be respected, and with this law the government is trying to hide this problem, to make the homeless people disappear. The politicians aren’t solving anything, just making the problem deeper and harder.”

Our correspondent Andrea Hajagos said: “Many experts agree that the new law brings no real solutions. But agreeing on what those solutions are remains elusive.”